REAGAN AND O’NEILL

It was Ronald Reagan who said, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.” That was in 1983 and it’s as true today as it was thirty years ago. Social Security is a trust fund set up by the government under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration for the people by the people. It is a trust fund, folks. A trust fund today of $2.8 TRILLION in government bonds funded by you and me paying a tax, which appears on your pay stub as FICA. So, why do we allow today’s President and Congress to call it an entitlement? Why do we allow them to squawk about Social Security in the same sentence as “fiscal cliff” and “budget deficit”? The Trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund of $2.8 TRILLION recently reported Social Security can pay out 100% of benefits due through 2033 and 75% thereafter. Does Social Security need to be revamped to ensure long term solvency at 100% of benefits due beyond 2033? Yes. But, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.”

When Congress and the President call Social Security an entitlement and lump it into news blips about the deficit, the fiscal cliff and sequestration every one of them, Republican and Democrat alike, is misleading, confusing and causing resentment toward retirees as it makes them out to be one of the bad guys causing our fiscal mess, when nothing is further from the truth.

Back in 1983 Ronald Reagan reached out to Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill to find a solution to what was, at that time, a bonafide Social Security crisis. The trust fund was only solvent for one more year, not twenty and beyond as it is today. Both men were wise enough to recognize Social Security was not part of the general budget for running the country. They didn’t point fingers and assign blame. They didn’t talk about retirees as if they were draining the budget. They put aside ideological differences. They focused on Social Security and Social Security alone. And, with his famous statement, Ronald Reagan made it crystal clear to the American people, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.” So, both men wisely sat down to hammer out a deal to ensure the long term solvency of the trust fund. Their bi-partisan effort resulted in the Social Security Amendment of 1983, putting Social Security on the solid ground on which it stands today. Yes. It is on solid ground today and for the next twenty years.

Neither Obama nor Boehner have shown the leadership of Reagan and O’Neill. Not in their willingness to enlighten the American public as Reagan so specifically did. Not in their willingness to reach across party lines and hammer out a deal to rework Social Security without eroding it’s benefits to the people who funded it. Accordingly, folks, it’s become the responsibility of the American people to tell these two public servants what the public wants. No, it becomes the responsibility of the American people to DEMAND action. If you haven’t called or emailed Misters Obama and Boehner, now is the time to do so. It’s easy. Really. I’ve provided links and phone numbers below. Make your voice heard. All you have to do is remind them of Reagan and O’Neill and tell them, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.”

http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or (202) 456-1111

http://www.speaker.gov/contact or (202)225-0600

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KISS

When I decided to write a blog, I searched online for other retirement blogs. One of the blogs I encountered is earlyretirementextreme.com. This guy retired in his thirties and lives on $7,000 a year. That’s his half of living expenses. His wife kicks in her half adding another $7,000. So, the two of them live on $14,000 total. Although he insists he has a great life, living below the poverty level isn’t my idea of a fun time. He lives in an RV (I like my 2,300 square feet). He has a garden (me, too). Fixes a lot of his own broken stuff (Martin handles a lot of broken stuff for us). Reading about his life, however, does bring to mind a very important principle about life and retirement, in general. Using a sort of negative sounding cliche we’ve all heard from time to time describes it best for me…Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS). The KISS principle was originally used by a Navy engineer who believed most systems operated most efficiently if kept simple in design. So goes our everyday life. At least that’s what works for me and that’s what I believe will continue to work best.

So when people continue to be incredulous about our early retirement and how we did it and are doing it, I now think KISS. Living a simple life isn’t living a life of denial. It isn’t living a life of poverty. It isn’t living a life in austerity. It’s living a THOUGHTFUL life. For example, today I had the pleasure of having my fifth grandchild with me all day. He’s four. Rather than plopping him on the couch to spend the day staring at the boob tube and feeding him junk, I thought what can we do that won’t cost a bundle and will be lots of fun.

What I don’t grow in my own garden, I buy in season from local farmers and freeze myself. Today in South Carolina strawberries are in season. My favorite place to buy strawberries is, where else, but Strawberry Hill, USA. A family owned fruit farm of several hundred acres of strawberry fields, peach orchards and blackberry patches, Strawberry Hill also offers up giant antique John Deere tractors for kids to sit on, farm tours and a family run cafe with a 1950’s feel and homemade ice cream to boot. Go another six miles down the road and you’ll find Cowpens National Battlefield where one of the decisive battles of the Revolutionary War was fought and a Junior Ranger Program promises badges, medals and education for kids of all ages. And, best of all, it’s free, though we usually push a donation through the slot of the box in the lobby. So, with a little thought I was able to pick up field fresh fruit at a bargain price, which will taste as great tonight with vanilla ice cream as it will next winter from the freezer and I entertained a four year old who went home with badge, Junior Ranger certificate and coloring book not to mention the big smile as he proudly handed strawberries to Mom. All for little money.

As I write this, I’m looking out the window at my beloved garden with flowers opening by the second, sipping a glass of white wine (yes, I write under the influence) and looking forward to Martin making fajiitas with beef smoked on the Green Egg, onions from the veggie garden and all the other fixings. Later, we’ll eat the fresh strawberries on ice cream and listen to the whippoorwill make his mournful call, bringing memories of Hank Williams singing on the record player at my parents’ home in New Jersey. The simple things in life.

So, whether you want to retire early or you want to retire at all, the best advice I can offer is to Keep It Simple Sisters and brothers. Keep it simple.

CHICKEN LITTLE

As I was making an appointment last week, my being retired came up in the conversation. The woman behind the desk said, “Oh, you’re one of the lucky ones. I’ll never be able to retire.” Reading this you might think she was one of the boomer generation who just didn’t save or had had some tough breaks in life. But this woman looked to be mid-thirties so I replied with, “You’re young. Save your pennies. You don’t need a lot of money to get to retirement. At your age, you need a regular savings plan. You already have the time.” She went on to tell me it was really hard to save anything in this economy and there would be no social security by the time she retired. Oh, my goodness, Chicken Little, the sky is falling!

As I drove home, I kept thinking about her attitude. I’d heard it all before. In fact, I’d heard it for decades. At one time in my life, I was also counted among the people who bought into the no way to save philosophy. I’m not trying to make light of the recent economic downturn. It’s been tough for a lot of people. Martin and I have both lost jobs at one time in our careers. So, I know firsthand how not fun that is. We also lived through the high inflation late 1970’s when gas prices first spiked and mortgage rates were upwards of 18%!!! Maybe that’s part of the reason we took this latest downturn in stride. While it may look and feel like the world is going to Hell in a handbasket (that’s a very old name for a woman’s handbag, which goes with the very old saying of going to Hell in a…well, now you know), the economy always seems to recover eventually. And, those who don’t sit around boohooing over it, seem to come out ahead of the rest of the crowd. You can have a Chicken Little, the sky is falling attitude or you can have a how can I make lemonade of out of this lemon attitude. Your choice.

So, back to my having heard it all before. I’ve talked with people who tell me they’ve tried to save but just can’t do it. Yet, they go out to dinner most nights or stop at the bar for a quick one…or two… on the way home. I’ve heard from people who go to Hawaii every year or Europe every year or Mexico every year or take a cruise every year. I’ve known of plenty of people who bought a new car every two years or three years just to keep up with the Joneses or so they wouldn’t have to deal with repairs. I’ve also known of lots of people who got a promotion with a nice sized raise and immediately went for the larger, more expensive home. Warren Buffett still lives in the same house he bought in his twenties. That should tell you something. I’ve known of women who had to buy one of those crazy big jewelry chests to house all the baubles they couldn’t stop buying.

Fortunately, I’ve also talked with lots of people who paid themselves first out of every paycheck. They socked it away for retirement. They invested in their future. Some of those same people were on the verge of retiring when in the fall of 2008 the bottom dropped out of their portfolio. Did they say they got screwed out of their retirement? Did they boo hoo about how their golden years wouldn’t be what they dreamed of? No, they said how can I make lemonade of this lemon! They reworked their dream, downsizing to a smaller home or deciding not to travel as much or selling off some of their toys. Others decided to keep working a couple more years. They kept a positive attitude. They were resilient despite what life had just handed them. On the contrary, I know people who pulled all of their money out of the stock market, thus locking in their losses and blaming everyone they could think of for their situation. Planning for retirement is like planning for anything else. Stuff happens. And, that means reworking the plan. It doesn’t mean retirement won’t happen. It just means it may look differently from your original dream or it may be delayed. You learn to roll with the punches.

As for Social Security, I smiled to myself about the young woman thinking there would be none for her generation. It’s the same thing Martin and I used to think about Baby Boomers. Does it look differently for our generation than it did for our parents? Yes. And, it will probably look differently for Generation X. Full benefits will most likely occur later, just like it is for us. It may not be as much, meaning the self-discipline to set up a regular, consistent savings plan is even more important. The fact is, Social Security has never been enough to retire on alone. It has always been and will continue to be just a part of the plan. Pensions have all but disappeared. However, I’d rather have my own nest egg in the form of a self-directed 401K or IRA or other plan any day of the week.

The key to whether or not you have a secure retirement or not is dependent upon your attitude. I recently read a story that has nothing to do with retirement but everything to do with attitude. It is the story of a high school basketball player who desired nothing more in his young life than to play basketball. When he was cut from the team, he felt humiliated and defeated. When he got home that day, he went to his room and cried. Today, Michael Jordan, who is probably the best basketball player who ever played, says that was a good experience. He didn’t allow himself to be defeated or defined by that circumstance. Instead, he reworked his plan. Attitude, folks, attitude.

So, whatever the economy, the government, the markets are doing, focus on what you can do with what you have to do it. You can have a retirement. And, what it looks like depends entirely upon how you look at life.

THE PERKS

The first time I really thought about the benefits of fitting the definition of senior, I was just shy of my sixtieth birthday. Considering there are places where 50 is the magic age of senior, I guess I’m a little slow. But on that winter day, I went grocery shopping like many other days in my life. I swiped my debit card at the check out, followed the bagger outside where he loaded my car and I drove home. As was my habit, after arriving home, unloading the car and taking care of all the cold stuff, I looked at my receipt to be sure I got the all the buy one, get one and other good deals. Then, I noticed it. There at the bottom of my tab. A 5% senior discount. SENIOR DISCOUNT??? At this particular grocery store, a 5% discount was given for anyone shopping on Wednesdays who was 60 or over. Sixty! At first, I felt a slight bit insulted. I wasn’t sixty. I was, well, 59 and 5/6ths. It must be the gray hair! They think I’m old. Maybe I should have kept coloring my hair. Whoa, wait a minute. I am old. Then, I thought, isn’t this great! Perks for old age.

While I wasn’t crazy about being called a senior or a retiree and I certainly don’t like the negative sounding definitions of retirement, the moment I realized there were perks to this old age thing, I was bitten. Heck, I shamelessly sported my gray hair as a ticket to more discounts. I started actively looking at the AARP website for discounts. I Googled “discounts for seniors”. I talked with neighbors, friends and family, even strangers. What did they know about the perks? What about where I lived? Maybe there was a state with more perks than South Carolina. So, I checked South Carolina’s government website. I knew about the $50,000 homestead exemption on property taxes for 65 and over. Despite already low property taxes, I’m looking forward to an even lower bill. What else was South Carolina willing to do for their seniors?

More Googling. Wow! Without even planning for it, I learned I was living in one of the top ten tax friendly states in the nation…for seniors. Thirty six states including South Carolina exempt Social Security benefits from state income taxes. But, another perk in my home state at 65 and over is a $15,000 deduction per person ($30,000 per couple) of retirement income, regardless of the source, from state income taxes. And we younger seniors can deduct up to $3,000 of retirement income, including public and private pensions and IRA distributions, from our taxable income. If you’re looking for ways to stretch your retirement income, look for one of the tax friendly states to call home. Hint: Most of them are in the south.

Looking for other perks for seniors, I found state supported colleges in South Carolina offer tuition-free classes to age 60 and over. If materials are included in the cost of the class, you have to spring for the materials. So, say you want to take a pottery class, plan on buying your own clay. But, the actual tuition for the instruction is free. Lifelong learning at no cost. That should give any retiree plenty to keep them challenged!

There are also the usual perks, like restaurants offering a free dinner, dessert or appetizer on your birthday, free coffee everyday with breakfast by showing your AARP card. Recently, I booked a hotel room for a trip we’re planning later this spring. The first thing I did, of course, was check their website for senior discounts. Their best rate dipped from $159 a night to a very pleasing $125 for 60 and over. I’ve heard some airlines offer senior discounts if you dig deep enough. There are senior discounts for that bastion of retirement bliss, the cruise. RVing? Look for RV parks offering senior discounts. When I’m 62, if the federal deficit doesn’t eat this perk, I’ll be buying my lifetime access pass to national parks for the unbelievable sum of $10!!! That’s lifetime, folks. Perks. Perks. Everywhere. So, even though I look for a better description for retirement than the one in the dictionary. And, even though I still think of a senior as some 17 year old about to graduate high school, from here on out, I will be looking for the words “senior discount” wherever I go. After all, old age has it’s perks.

ANTE UP

Once you get your financial house in order with a budget and debt reduction, it’s time to get serious about saving. Get ready to ante up. According to the January/February 2013 issue of Money magazine, page 112, in order to have enough savings to retire and have that money last, “The amount you save is more crucial than how you invest.” It seems counterintuitive but I’m here to tell you this is what worked for me. This same article in Money recommends saving at least 15% of your gross income per year. That 15% doesn’t include any employer match. Now, in the past, I’ve talked with people about this strategy and they’ve claimed they can make up for a lower savings percentage with an aggressive investment strategy. Well, yes, you could take that risk with your future, but, how will you weather a severe economic downturn such as the recent one the nation is still trying to crawl out from under. Due to the strategy I’m telling you about here, we were still able to retire early despite the dive the stock market took in 2008. So, how do you reach the point where you can ante up 15% of your income per year?

Well, for starters, if you free yourself of non-mortgage debt, how much will you have in additional monies, which can then be redirected to your retirement savings? After all, that’s the entire reason for becoming debt-free. Look at the light at the end of your debt reduction tunnel. Maybe the thought of adding more to your retirement fund will be an incentive to stay on track to free yourself from the debt. Will your employer give you a raise this year? Most people who have taken control of their financial situation by accounting for every dime they earn can add at least 1% of their gross income per year to their contribution. Think about this. Look at the historical average annual inflation rate in the US, which, as of 2012, is a little more than 3%. We lived through years in the 1980’s when inflation was about 14% and then there are years, like 2012, when the rate is around 2%. Lower inflation rates are likely to be with us for a while. If you receive a raise in 2013 of 3%, decide right now, before you even see the dollars in your paycheck, to put 1% into your 401K. And then, do it! Will you get a promotion? Even in these slow economic times people get promoted. If someone retires, moves on to another company or is transferred to another city, there’s most likely an opening. Are you doing everything you can at work to put yourself in a position to reap the rewards of filling a vacancy? Promotions usually come with substantial raises. Look for ways to change your financial outlook so you can increase the amount you save toward retirement.

A savings strategy as opposed to an investment strategy also doesn’t mean you can now ignore where you put your money. If you work for an employer offering a 401K, they most likely have a money management company who administers their program. You may be offered options on how to invest your savings and they may automatically rebalance your portfolio to meet your retirement goals according to the mix you choose. Additionally, they most probably also offer investment counseling from the administrator’s financial planners. As a manager, I often found this to be an underused resource by employees. Take advantage of this opportunity to have an advisor help you plan your financial future. Even if you’re self-employed, before you decide where to put your money, decide who will administer your self-employed pension for you. I found, as a real estate broker, this became more personal as I wanted someone who was knowledgeable, trust worthy and willing to take the time to sit down with me to answer questions. Who I chose as a partner advisor was entirely up to me. I gave it a lot of thought.

Lastly, I learned to ignore the emotion attached to trading on the stock market. When the market has ups and downs and you hear the commentators on the news talking about the emotional swings, they are talking about YOU! The pros are not getting all worked up about this news or that news. It’s their job to remain clear headed. They look at it from a more pragmatic view. We know people who panicked during the downturn of October 2008 and moved their entire portfolios to money market accounts, thus locking in their losses. One individual told me this was the only way he could sleep at night and, besides, he’d time it so he came back in as things started to pick up. This same individual then missed the “timing” in March 2009 when the market took an upswing. As I mentioned, you lock in your losses and even the experts, who do this for a living, can’t predict the market. So, we chose to adopt a strategy of not moving money out of a mutual fund or selling a stock unless there was something wrong with the management or something wrong with the product. And, yes, that also means looking at who’s managing your fund or who’s at the helm of a company. It also means keeping an eye on the product to be sure it’s still desired by the general public. With the power of the internet this has become easier just be aware everything you read on the web is not always true.

As you can see, once you ante up, along with that comes even more personal responsibility. Taking control of your financial life is never easy but the reward of increasing your chances of having enough money to last your lifetime is more than worth the extra work. In order to retire comfortably, you don’t need a lot of money to begin with. You need a steady savings plan and time. After all, this is your money and your future. So, ante up!

I OWE, I OWE…

Driving down the highway, on occasion I’ll spot a bumper sticker on the car in front of me announcing ‘I owe, I owe so off to work I go’. You’ve probably seen it, too. This, of course, is a play on the classic Disney movie, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and the dwarfs’ song of ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go’. As I look at the sticker, besides thinking immediately of Snow White, I always wonder if the car’s driver thinks having debt is something cute or something of a joke.

To be sure, debt is no joke. Nor, is there anything cute about it. Debt overload is a blood sucking, killer of the spirit. If you get yourself into a situation where everything you earn is paid to creditors, you may be one paycheck away from bankruptcy. The loss of a job can snowball into the loss of a home, car and credit standing. Even a minor emergency can be devastating if you’re a slave to debt. Having so much of your money going out the door to support creditors that you’re living hand to mouth is not living. It’s no more than survival. And, before you can start increasing your savings amount so you can retire, you must pay off your non-mortgage debt and not accumulate more. But, how do you get rid of the debt monster?

Decades ago as a young loan officer at a bank, I met a couple who wanted to take their children to Europe the following summer. They didn’t come to me for a loan. They wanted to know how they could come up with the money to go to Europe without taking out another loan. Maybe they could find the money by consolidating all their loans. It took no more than a few minutes for me to recognize this couple’s circumstance was dire. No matter how you looked at it, they wouldn’t be going to Europe any time soon. They were buried in debt, living paycheck to paycheck. They already had a second mortgage, something almost unheard of at the time, the purpose of which was to consolidate their earlier load of debt. Being in the business of putting people in debt, over their protests, I sent them to a debt counselor. Sometime later, I saw the debt counselor. She told me how shocked this couple was to find they had to sell their boat and trailer, the pick up truck purchased to haul the boat and trailer and one of their cars just to avoid financial disaster. And, to get out of other unnecessary debt, the wife should find a job. They left their first meeting with her angry and mumbling how they knew how to handle their money. A personal emergency, for which they had no funds, brought them back to her and reality. Sad story. And, this was prior to people having multiple credit cards in their wallets! Unfortunately, this is a story that’s still being played out today all over America. People who want a certain lifestyle without thinking about the result. If you’re in a similar circumstance, the first step toward freeing yourself is to admit you’re here. Even if your situation isn’t severe but you just want to save more, taking personal responsibility is the first step in creating a new reality for yourself.

Once you decide to be accountable for the situation you created, you free yourself to make a plan to pay off your debt. If you’ve been reading my blog everyday, you already know we did things contrary to what the financial experts recommend. That’s because we didn’t know any better at the time. So, we started saving first. Then, we paid off debt using bonuses, tax refunds and anything else we could lay our hands on. But, we took action, which is required for changing any situation.

So, what do the experts recommend? Take your smallest debt and pay that off first. Then, once that loan is paid off, take the monthly payment on that loan and apply it to the next smallest debt and so on and so on until all your loans are paid off. Cut up the credit cards! We shredded every card but one, which is all we carry today. Since just about every business takes all the major cards, there’s no reason to carry several cards, other than to continue to keep yourself in slavery to the credit card companies. You don’t need store credit cards, either, because they take all the major cards. Place a moratorium on new purchases. Live with the same household goods, cars and clothes until all debt is paid off. If you have toys like boats, RV campers, motorcycles or extra cars, consider selling them to pay off debt. Clean out the garage, attic and basement and either hold a garage sale or go to that giant flea market on the web, eBay, and sell the stuff collecting dust. Look at your payroll taxes. You really don’t want a refund from Uncle Sam or your state. The country may need you to float them a loan, but you need the use of your money today. So, look at the tax tables and your deductions and make any adjustments necessary to avoid over paying by too much.

Just like your budget, making a debt reduction plan is the easy part. Sticking to it takes WORK! It takes discipline and commitment. It takes a new mindset. And, above all, it takes action. I recently made a $64 purchase at a store using my debit. The clerk enticingly told me how I could save 10% today if I signed up for the store’s credit card. She even threw in a big smile! Nice try but NO, NO, NO! You already know they want you to run up charges on that card, only pay the minimum payment each month and, if you do, they’ll get their 10% back and a boatload more in interest. And, if you really mess up and pay late, they can tack on up to a $25 late charge. So, smile back and say, “NO, thank you”. And, take that bumper sticker off of your car.

BUDGET AND OTHER DIRTY WORDS

This morning I met with an aide of my Congressional Representative, Trey Gowdy, to discuss my thoughts about the country’s deficit. As we talked about the deficit and the handling of the fiscal cliff, she mentioned how the country didn’t have a budget. Well, that’s because congress hasn’t passed a budget in the last four years! And, the American people haven’t demanded as much of their congressional representatives, at least not loudly enough. Perhaps we’re apathetic to this gap in service because 70% of American households don’t run on a budget. Somehow, the word budget has become synonymous with unpleasantries, constraint, constriction. It’s become a dirty word.

However, a household budget is a major component of the level of personal responsibility necessary to obtain a secure retirement. It never ceases to amaze me how people don’t budget, don’t find the inner ability to discipline themselves to organize their financial life and then wonder why their golden years are not so golden. So, don’t look at budget as a dirty word. Instead, look at it as your plan to change your life. If you are going to pay off non-mortgage debt and start saving larger amounts of your income, the first step is learning to live within, and maybe even below, your means. Over the years I’ve met a lot of people who are saving enough in their 401K to receive their employer’s match but that match is usually somewhere between 2% and 6% at the rate of $.50 on the $1. Well, friends, that won’t get you to a secure, happy retirement.

Successful businesses all have budgets. At the end of each year, they put together an operating budget based on the current year’s income and spending trends for their business. Then, they follow their progress throughout the next year with a profit and loss statement as measured against the operating budget. They adjust as necessary to remain on target for their year-end financial goals. Now, all of this means being organized and disciplined. Ugh! Organized and disciplined. Really? I can see your eyes glazing over as I type this. But, would you consider working for a business that was being flown by the seat of the managers’ pants? Would you invest your hard-earned cash in such a business? Not likely. Why? Because you’d want to work for a stable company, which would produce a good paycheck for you or you’d want to invest in a company, which could pay dividends or increase its stock value. And, you’d want a company which had a little something left over to reinvest in the company.

In order to change your mindset about budgets, think of your household as YOU, Inc. Your business isn’t to support all kinds of service providers and manufacturers by spending every last dime of your household income. Your business is providing the necessities for life along with a few niceties of life and having some left to reinvest in YOU, Inc. so you can enjoy a secure retirement. Many years ago, when I had only one grandchild, that grandchild was jumping around on the couch next to me. Suddenly, he stopped and looked at me intently. “Grandma”, he said, sounding very serious and beyond his four years, “Did you know a house is a need and a toy is a want?” Out of the mouths of babes! He’d obviously been listening to my daughter, his mother, explain why he couldn’t get a toy every time they went to the store. The plan was to pay for needs first. Whether you’re already retired or you want to retire or even if you want to retire young, the only way to manage your financial life is by having a plan. That’s all a budget is. It’s a plan. It’s a plan for YOU, Inc. Most of us have enough money to meet our basic needs. We end up in financial trouble when we also want the toys and, sometimes, too many toys.

When we started budgeting, I was pretty stringent with the limits. We didn’t have an emergency fund yet. We were just trying to get a handle on expenses. I didn’t understand how a budget has a life of its own. I didn’t understand how sometimes, especially if you have kids at home, something unexpected can pop up and wreck your plan momentarily. So, it took a while to learn that a budget has to be fluid at times. If you have an unexpected expense, the first thing is to look at other items to see if you can re-allocate some money. However, if you overspend on an item over and over, maybe you weren’t realistic about the cost to begin with. Or, maybe that’s a financial drain you need to plug. Our big wake up was what we spent on groceries. Since we both like to cook, finding a new recipe could decimate the week’s grocery allocation. We REALLY like to cook! We plugged that hole by making a list of a month’s worth of meals, shopping twice a month and not deviating from the plan. Now, new recipes had to wait until next month and we offset expensive, gourmet meals with something cheaper. We brown bagged lunches and cut back on our eating out budget. On another note, we eliminated the feeling of being constrained by giving each of us a monthly allowance. We call it our ‘blow money’ meaning we can blow it on whatever we want, no questions asked, no holds barred. This also eliminated 99.9% of the arguments over money. Every budget is unique to your needs. Just be careful not to confuse needs with wants. Conversely, don’t be so stingy with your assessment that you forget needs, which feed your soul.

Whatever you do, make that budget now! Work to internalize your budget into your mindset and everyday life until budget’s no longer a dirty word but an empowerment word.

HERE’S TO YOUR HEALTH

Being a gardener, in past years, most of my New Year’s resolutions revolved around that passion. I usually also threw in something about eating better and exercising more. Like many people, the latter were the resolutions which didn’t always come to fruition. But, my garden flourished. Since I spent most of December 2011 seeing a physical therapist twice weekly for a bum knee, last year neither gardening nor physical betterment made the cut as I entered 2012 sans resolutions. In an off handed way, my desire to strengthen my right leg so the knee would function as normal was a type of resolution and I spent January working on my exercises at home.

But, by February’s end I was down with a cold, which turned into six weeks of bronchitis followed by several more weeks of regaining my stamina. (Bronchitis is tough. It’s even tougher if you’re 60!) By July, however, I was finally feeling better. So, I decided to make a half yearly resolution to walk one mile six times a week. I’ve been pretty successful in meeting that goal, only faltering during an eight day stretch in Michigan at Christmas when frigid temps gave new meaning to the words “brisk walk”. Rewind to August when the specter of skin cancer popped up during a long deferred visit to my dermatologist. Since an old friend passed away last December of metastatic melanoma, I sweated profusely waiting for the biopsy result. The biopsy came back as pre-cancerous…whew!

So, now, as I look back at 2012, I realize how important my health is as I age. I once saw a plaque in an office, which read, “If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?” To be sure, eventually, our bodies will give out. As my MD pointed out to me, “Arthritis is just a fancy word for the parts are wearing out.” At some point, all the parts will wear out or, at the very least, one very important part will wear out and we will leave our mortal home behind. So, if we want to spend as much time as we can in this earthly state, then we need, no, we must take care of our physical health. Not only does care of one’s physical health allow you to maintain your independence longer and keep you mentally fit, it’s also less costly. Getting sick or having even some of the lesser conditions, such as pre-diabetes or high cholesterol, which creep up with age, can set you back financially. The healthier you are physically, the healthier you will be financially.

As I enter 2013, I have plenty of garden related resolutions. But, this year they’re secondary to the resolutions to keep my health. My goal is to use sunscreen on my face every day. Not the drug store variety but the really good stuff with the zinc oxide sold by my dermatologist. Since it’s moisturizing, I’m replacing my moisturizer with it, which should offset the extra cost. I’m going to keep walking and add another mile, one quarter mile each calendar quarter so by the end of 2012 I should be walking two miles. Not a big lofty goal but certainly doable, which is what counts. Walking requires nothing more than a good pair of shoes and enough love for yourself to set aside the time for your walk every day. And, if I reach my goal of two miles six days a week earlier in the year, I can always tack on a half yearly resolution and start on a third mile for 2012. I’ve also armed myself with hand sanitizer, which I will use religiously, (I promise). No colds this year.

So, whatever your resolutions this year, make them realistic, make them reachable and make them for your health. After all, if you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?

UNPLUGGED

Remember the girl from the hayfield? She didn’t own a TV. No TV for the first 10 years of our marriage. Then my in-laws decided to buy my kids a TV for Christmas. Without consulting my husband and me! We could afford a TV; we just didn’t want the TV! “But they really enjoy it when they visit.” Yes, we know. That’s because they don’t have it. They don’t have it because we prefer reading, playing games with our kids, going to the park or the YMCA. We want family time. But once that Christmas gift was opened, it was tough to undo the damage. We’d had pressure from our family and friends, our kids’ teachers and even strangers to own a TV. Maybe we were just tired of being the weird people with no TV. Whatever it was, in time we became just as plugged in as the majority of Americans. We owned three TV’s with cable service. We had phones throughout the house. We took on the internet as soon as we could get our hands on a computer and AOL.

These days, however, watching the morning news ain’t what it used to be. I used to tune in to CNN first thing, tearing myself away to get ready for work. I’d flip between stations in an attempt to avoid the commercials. I admit it. I was a news junkie. In my retired life there is no CNN. If it isn’t network news or education TV, we don’t have it. Why? Because we got tired of paying $85+ a month to watch just a handful of stations. No kidding. Our lineup was CNN, network stations, SyFy, TNT and not much else. So, we decided until the satellite or cable companies allow their customers to choose a menu and pay for only what they want, not what the companies need us to want, we’d unplug for a while. Well, a funny thing happened. At least once a week for the past 15 months, we’ve received a letter from our old company offering a low one year rate of only $29.99 a month. Lately, they’ve also been throwing in a $200 Visa card if we agree to a two contract. But, once we decided to unplug from the satellite dish, an even funnier thing happened…we don’t miss satellite TV! We don’t even watch much TV at all anymore. We read, write, talk, play games, engage.

Hmmmm….we asked ourselves, “What else could we do without electronically?” Well, there was the landline. The one used mainly by telemarketers. We had it armed with voicemail, caller ID and call waiting. Once in a while someone we knew would call the landline. If we didn’t answer, they hung up without leaving a message and called our cell phone, where, if they didn’t reach us, they left a message! So we were paying for a landline because…? There wasn’t a rational answer. Oh, but, whoa just a minute. We did need the landline for our security system. No, no, no. Even the security system could run on a cell signal. So, there went the landline. And, as a side benefit, by unplugging the phone, we also claimed more desk space.

Once we decided to unplug, we started questioning all of our gadgets. Now, even though we’re still connected, we’re less connected. Satellite went the way of the landline in favor of only a cell phone. The computer went in favor of an iPad with 3G or wi-fi. No contract on the 3G. I can turn it on or off at will. And it costs less than half the cost of internet on the computer. The iPad isn’t a computer but with all the apps, I’ve not found much of a handicap. In fact, I’m writing this article on Pages and will post it using my iPad.

So, we have a few less gadgets, more money, more space. We engage more with each other and life in general. And, when we plug in these days, it’s because something or another needs a charge.

LIVING ON THE GRID

Recently there was a spot on network news about how a lot of baby boomers wanted to spend their retirement years rediscovering themselves but most wouldn’t be able to do that because they didn’t save enough for retirement to ever stop working. I count myself among the fortunate. We’re not wealthy but we have enough to spend our retirement rediscovering ourselves.

When I think about rediscovering myself, I think about the girl who got married in a hayfield in upstate New York. No, you’re not going blind. I wrote hayfield, a hayfield complete with Episcopalian priest wearing overall jeans and plain white t-shirt beneath his robes. We had a guitar player/singer who belted out some really smarmy tunes (I liked them a lot at the time) such as “Time in a Bottle”. Everyone stood around in sensible shoes witnessing our vowels while I was so struck with emotion I cried through my own wedding. The emotion was triggered by my priest arriving 20 minutes late…talk about being stood up at the alter! My husband was this handsome long haired guy with a mustache and beads around his neck that matched the ones around my neck. I wore a long cream colored dress with a picture hat. My bridesmaids wore home sewn dresses in a variety of pastel colors. The guys wore tuxes with frilly shirts. Where did those people go? I’ll tell you where they went. They got bills…mortgage, electric, gas, water, garbage, car payments, student loans and kids. So they traded in the beads for jobs that made enough money to support all that and more. They became a consumer unit! And consume they did. The idea of living in our little house on 10 acres gave way to chasing jobs and promotions cross country moving into ever larger accommodations while seeking good schools, good shopping and the latest stuff.

Am I ready to give up living on the grid? Am I ready to stop being what some government agencies call a consumer unit? Not entirely. We did pare down the consumerism in order to retire early and have a less cluttered life. However, and it’s a big however, I like being able to walk in the door, flip a switch and get electricity for lights, gas for cooking and water running from the tap. But I also want healthier food and a mindful, sustainable lifestyle. I prefer jeans to my work attire. T- shirts to blouses. Our old matching beads to any gold necklace. I like my smaller house…less to clean, heat, cool and pay property taxes on. Ditto for my seven year old Mazda. So, while I search for the girl from the hayfield, I guess I still want to live on the grid and be a consumer unit without consuming quite so much.